Since the Internet came into existence and website design became a legitimate profession, it has been said that design consistency is pivotal when it comes to provoking the best audience experience online. But is this true? Making sure each page of your website looks like a part of the same whole is important - more to maintain your brand image than anything - but there is more to the process than this.
In the modern world, often the safest route to let your audience understand something quickly is to use an already established precedent. Consider road signs, standardised images make these signs instantly recognisable, even when only viewed for a split second on the edge of a motorway. They alert drivers to slippery surfaces, queues and any number of other hazards. The response to these signs is not natural or innate but instead they hold a semiotic significance that has been instilled through years of familiarity, in simpler terms: they mean something to us because we’ve given them meaning. We see red as stop, green as go and yellow as caution, not because evolution has lead us here but because those are the signifiers that society has given them. Understanding of road signs is taught through familiarity with the road system and the driving tests themselves, then applied everywhere we see the same images. The same could be true of how we use websites.
When asked to think about what ‘a website’ looks like, most people would tend to come up with the same image. It would probably have some kind of header image at the top with the site’s name on and underneath that would be a navigation bar. You may also imagine a sidebar on either side, or perhaps both of the page, with the main body of content in the centre. Website formats like this have been in existence since the dawn of the Internet and although always prevalent, they have enjoyed another surge in popularity since the deluge of sites built on easy to use frameworks like Wordpress. And the thing is, they work.
Think about it: if you were to stumble onto a website like this you would immediately know how to navigate around the site. Assuming the creator had the knowledge to name pages sensibly, you would most likely be able to find what you wanted to within a matter of minutes or less.
This is certainly the safest path to choose for your website design and for plenty of people and businesses it is more than adequate. But for those who want to break out of the box and challenge the consistency of the web ‘norm’, what other options are there?
A travel site, for example, could easily get by with an interactive image of a globe on their homepage and nothing else. Clicking on an area of the globe would bring up information about that country: places to visit, where to stay, flights or maybe a blogger’s own experiences there. The main issue would be clarity and the user experience designer of this site may decide to add a more traditional navigation, or a simple search bar, to go along with the globe. A website for a butcher’s shop or chain of butcher’s could offer up advice on cuts of meat by using a design similar type of signage you get in the shop. Clicking on different bits of an animal would give you information on the cut and what it could be used for, link to recipes or even offer up user reviews and ideas. Again, if a designer needed to, they could add more traditional elements but introducing a new layer of interactivity might be a great way to catch a customer’s eye and keep them browsing your site. Developing this kind of functionality into a website breaks with tradition but as long as the usability is there, it adds a level of creativity that other sites may not be willing to offer. Research suggests that as little as little as 20% of the words on any given web page will be read. By adapting your website to include more interactive and visual elements that lead an audience to the content you want them to read could be the boost you need to keep people browsing.
When it comes right down to it, your website needs to be able to deliver a message simply and effectively and whilst the ‘traditional’ layout and structure of a website may do that, you should never be afraid to try something new. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain from trying a more adaptive approach. So go ahead, let loose and start using your conventions creatively!